A federal grand jury recently returned a seven-count indictment charging Shawnda Rochelle Augustus, age 39, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for allegedly obtaining and attempting to obtain unemployment benefits following the floods of 2016 and pandemic unemployment benefits in 2020. Augustus appeared for her arraignment and pled not guilty to the pending charges.
In August 2016, the President issued a major disaster declaration for portions of Louisiana devastated by historic flooding. The declaration authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide federal funds for disaster relief programs, including disaster unemployment benefits to those who could no longer work as a result of the floods. In March 2020, the President declared a national emergency as a result of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, and signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act. The CARES Act was designed to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing emergency assistance for individuals, including new types of unemployment benefits for those individuals who were not longer employed as a result of the pandemic. In Louisiana, both the disaster unemployment assistance (DUA) and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) programs were administered by the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC). In other states, the PUA program is administered by the state’s unemployment insurance agency.
According to the indictment, following the floods of 2016, Augustus engaged in a scheme to defraud and to obtain money from FEMA by submitting fraudulent applications for DUA benefits to the LWC, both in her own name, and in the names of other victims, without their knowledge or consent. As a result of these submissions, Augustus received or attempted to receive approximately $244,036 in fraudulent DUA benefits.
The indictment further alleges that Augustus engaged in multi-state fraud scheme to obtain PUA benefits to which she was not entitled. Specifically, Augustus submitted fraudulent applications for PUA benefits in Louisiana, and in multiple other states, including Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee, Hawaii, and Nebraska, among others. Augustus also obtained the personal identifying information of victims, including names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers. Using these stolen identities, Augustus submitted fraudulent applications for PUA benefits in the names of those victims in multiple states. According to the indictment, Augustus received approximately $123,908 in false claims for PUA benefits. Once the funds were transmitted, Augustus allegedly withdrew the funds as cash, or used the funds to pay for hotels, airline tickets, and purchases at restaurants and retail stores.
This matter is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Labor is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Kristen L. Craig.
NOTE: An indictment is an accusation by a grand jury. The defendant is presumed innocent until and unless adjudicated guilty at trial or through a guilty plea.